August 23, 2012 at 11:08 am EDT | by Jonathan Howard
Delightful delicacies

Izakaya Seki (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Sometimes studying up a little beforehand or taking along knowledgeable pals can enhance a dinner out tremendously if it’s a realm of cuisine on which one is relatively unschooled.

Father and daughter Hiroshi and Cizuka Seki opened Izakaya Seki (1117 V Street NW) on July 29. They place the sole focus of the restaurant on the exquisite food they serve with a minimalist yet gorgeous design of the space.

I was concerned about eating at a place that was light years beyond my comfort zone, so I brought my husband along with Amanda and Tony, my two “Japanese food experts,” to help me review this experience.

Both Amanda and Tony have eaten at Izakayas in Japan so I asked them to assist me with some of the basics, like eating with chopsticks, the finer points of Sake and how to decide if a rare food like cuttlefish is any good. The Japanese word Izakaya means sitting in a Sake shop, but the word has evolved to describe a casual eating and drinking establishment. Red paper lanterns are traditionally found in front of Izakayas and Izakaya Seki is no different. The lantern out front is one of the sole identifying items of this restaurant.

We had to wait to be seated and since the restaurant is small they took our number and called us when the table was ready. Once seated, our warm, attentive and humorous waitress, Mita, greeted us.

We began with the sashimi special and the Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio. The Scallop Carpaccio was the first to arrive and with its myogi ginger and the citrus notes of the yuzo, made it a fantastic start to the meal. I was even able to manipulate the thinly sliced raw scallops with my chopsticks. The sashimi special was jam packed with small bites of fresh seafood like shrimp, tuna, clam, octopus and cuttlefish among others. Everything had a fresh, crisp flavor to it and although some of the textures (especially the cuttlefish) did not agree with me, the flavors did. Our first Sake, recommended by Mita to accompany our first two courses, was the Nigori “otter fest” which complemented this raw course perfectly.

We proceeded in order down the menu and selected the Mero grilled with Miso and the beef tongue with yuzu miso. The Mero or Patagonian toothfish — generally marketed as Chilean Sea Bass — was impeccably prepared with a slight sweetness and flakiness that melted in your mouth. The beef tongue was moist and the delicious sauce complemented the rich deep flavor of the tongue.

We moved along slowly. The four of us had already been dining more than an hour and had polished off two bottles of Sake. This is when I was introduced to Scochu. Unlike Sake, Scochu is distilled and the alcoholic content is generally higher. I found the Scochu to have a more refined and delicate flavor. Scochu ranges in price, but if you purchase a bottle and don’t finish it, they will keep it on a shelf in the upstairs dining room with your name on it.

We sipped our Scochu and dined on standout dishes like the cream croquettes with béchamel, crab and corn; the delicious fried tempura vegetables; and the earthy assorted mushrooms. I even tried a bite of the fried tofu with cream cheese, and while it was well prepared and enjoyed by others, I was delighted to discover that I still find tofu repulsive, even fried and with cream cheese.

Finally, our meal ended, in traditional Japanese fashion, with Soba and Chahan. The Chahan (fried rice) was rich, delicate and flavorful, yet difficult to eat with chopsticks.

After nearly three hours, I had completed what felt like a master class in Japanese cuisine, having left few stones unturned. There were however, some recommended dishes we didn’t have room for like the wasabi chicken, the kushikatsu, the kinpiri and the rice balls. As well as some dishes I was not quite ready to try like the sea urchin with quail egg and the monkfish liver.

Overall, this was a perfect evening with friends, a delightful waitress who skillfully guided us through our entire meal and beautifully prepared and presented food. This was, quite possibly, one of the best and most eye opening meals I have eaten in Washington. Plan on spending some time and money on this experience, but you will be rewarded.

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